Five winning proposals selected in Johns Hopkins Idea Lab challenges

Helping individuals returning from incarceration pay for housing, mentoring high school students to build robotic cars, and providing a system to reuse dorm furnishings and supplies are among the winning ideas to emerge from the latest round of online crowdsourcing on the Johns Hopkins Idea Lab.

Individuals from across Johns Hopkins submitted 80 ideas on the Idea Lab website in response to three challenges:

  • To deepen the university's commitment to the Baltimore community
  • To strengthen diversity
  • To encourage sustainability

Over a two-week voting period, members of the Johns Hopkins community placed nearly 9,000 votes for their favorite proposals.

"It was an exciting finish, with a surge of votes on the final day of voting," says Nicole Pennington, one of the Idea Lab moderators. "The number of votes is more than double what we received in the Idea Lab's inaugural cycle last year, with participation from more than 4,500 students, faculty, and staff across every school and division in the Johns Hopkins community."

Five initial winners have been identified, and over the coming weeks additional teams that participated in the Ten by Twenty Challenge and the Diversity Innovation Grants will be selected by committees to receive financial support. Information about all of the funded projects from both cycles is on the Idea Lab website.

Ten by Twenty Challenge

This is the second year that JHU President Ronald J. Daniels has put forth a challenge to advance the goals of the Ten by Twenty vision for Johns Hopkins' future. The 2016 challenge focused on the university's commitment to its communities and offered up to $20,000 in funding for ideas that will assist Baltimore citizens returning from incarceration.

"These individuals are often marginalized in our community," says Darius Graham, director of the Social Innovation Lab and co-leader of the challenge. "It is exciting to see our scholars consider the significant issues these citizens face and offer concrete solutions for connecting them to the education, training, and social supports they need to reintegrate into society."

Three undergraduates proposed a project called Hop Back Home, which received the most votes in the Ten by Twenty Challenge. The project will give selected returning citizens housing grants for six months in combination with connections to existing community resources for health, education, and employment.

"Ultimately, despite the host of issues ex-inmates encounter upon their release, addressing the issue of procuring safe housing will alleviate them of one of their greatest concerns, further allowing them to tackle other issues such as employment and finances," the team wrote in their proposal.

The idea that gathered the second highest number of votes was submitted by two freshmen. Their program—called Build. Develop. Empower.—focuses on providing returning citizens with tutorial sessions, seminars, and training focused on both hard and soft skills, and assisting them in securing jobs. The program will work in partnership with existing training programs while offering additional small group experiences led by members of the Johns Hopkins community.

The program "develops fundamental skills applicable and transferable across industries, opening doors for years to come in the ever-changing economy," the proposal says.

The winning teams will partner with community organizations, including the Center for Urban Families and BUILD, in order to implement their plans.

Diversity Leadership Grants

The Johns Hopkins Diversity Leadership Council has awarded Diversity Innovation Grants since 2012, and this is the second year it has utilized the Idea Lab for submissions.

The JHU National Society of Black Engineers received 698 votes for its plan to offer a STEM-focused after-school program to Baltimore City high school students. Johns Hopkins undergraduates will teach engineering concepts, guide the participants in science projects, and serve as mentors.

The Hopkins Robotics club received 696 votes for its plan to engage more people in robotics, electronics, and software development. The NavBot program involves training Johns Hopkins students and staff to build a robot car and then asking them to teach what they have learned to students in the Baltimore school system.

"The Johns Hopkins University and Health System community offered a wide range of ideas for increasing diversity and inclusion on our campuses and in our broader community," says Ashley Llorens, chair of the Diversity Leadership Council and a moderator for the challenge. "The council is excited to offer the support to turn these ideas into reality."

Eco-Smart Acorn Grants

This year's Idea Lab cycle launched the Hopkins Eco-Smart Acorn Grants to increase sustainability on Johns Hopkins campuses. The winning idea was Trash to Treasure: Recycling Redefined, a student-run system to collect and reuse items from student's dorms.

A group of nine students submitted the idea and said, "Every year, college students together discard millions of tons of unused college and dorm room essentials such as office supplies, paper stationery, bedding supplies, etc. Trash to Treasure seeks to provide an innovative, cost-effective solution to recycle unused dorm-room supplies among fellow university affiliates."

Student volunteers will collect items in the spring when students move out of their residences and deliver the materials to a storage facility. The items will be stored and categorized and made available for free to incoming and returning students in the fall.

"Through a partnership with Housing, Residence Life, Homewood Recycling and my office, the Homewood campus has hosted a move-out collection program for undergraduates for a number of years, but this program offers new opportunities to encourage reuse and waste reduction at move-in," says Ashley Pennington, program manager for the Office of Sustainability. "I look forward to how this idea will enhance and amplify current efforts, while also expanding solutions to other parts of the institution, and other times of the year."

Individuals can email comments and questions to

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